Recently I gave a talk in which I explored the idea of a hosted lifebits service. I think it’ll turn out to be fundamental principle and an enabler of many things, including the social network portability that is the blogosphere’s topic du jour. But before we go there, let’s explore how a series of more basic scenarios might play out in the context of a hosted lifebits service.

1) I write a blog entry.

Today we can, and often do, put serious effort into these acts of personal publishing. But the infrastructure to which we commit our words, sounds, and images doesn’t take our effort seriously. There’s no guarantee that anyone will be able to access an item at the published address in a year, never mind ten or a hundred. And there’s no guarantee that the effects of these acts of personal publishing — the reactions they provoke, the influences that flow from them, the reputations they create for us — can be measured.

In the hosted lifebits scenario such guarantees will exist, because we’ll pay for the service that makes them. At the core of that service is an archive that provides price-tiered levels of assurance that your stuff will be stable over time, that access will be granted in exactly the ways you specify, and that you can monitor that access.

I may over time use a succession of blog publishing systems. No problem, because the publishing service is decoupled from the core lifebits service. When I change publishing services, no content changes hands. There’s no export or import. I just authorize a different publishing service to access my archive. And there’s no rewriting of the URLs either. I declare what my web namespace will be. The lifebits service guarantees its long-term persistence, and collaborates with the publishing service to populate that namespace.

What if my lifebits service goes belly-up? Still no problem. There are multiple lifebits providers, and they belong to a government-regulated federation that assures continuity. One real-life example of this business arrangement is the insurance industry’s notion of a guaranty fund.

2) I comment on somebody else’s blog.

Today, each time I do that, I commit my words to a different foreign system. Logically they’re all my comments, but operationally they’re scattered all over the place, subject to a random assortment of naming and archival policies. True, there are services that can help me lasso all my comments, but architecturally this is just herding cats that have already gotten out of the bag.

In the hosted lifebits scenario, the item I’m commenting on is a permanent part of its author’s archive, at a stable URL. To comment on it, I write an item into my archive that refers to the item I’m commenting on, and my publishing service notifies the author’s publishing service that a comment has been made. We have various approximations of this behavior today, of course, but real consistency and coherence will require the use of lifebits services and associated lifebits-aware publishing services.

3) I write an email.

Today when I do that, I transmit a message from my email system to yours. If I want to maintain a coherent archive of my email, there are all sorts of challenges. Over time I use a succession of personal and business email systems. And at any given point I use several different ones concurrently, to separate personal from business correspondence. I know a few people who have kept their email archives intact over time, but for most those archives are scattered across a variety of local and (nowadays) cloud-based repositories.

In the hosted lifebits scenario, an email message can be a kissing cousin to a blog posting or a comment. I write it, commit it to my archive at a stable URL, notify you of its existence at that URL, and optionally transmit a copy of the message. That last step is optional because this model decouples two aspects of email that have always been inseparable: notification and transmission.

The core lifebits service that I’m postulating here, plus associated lifebits-aware publishing services — which are what email services turn out to be in this model — aren’t enough to achieve that decoupling. We’ll also need an access control regime that leverages an identity metasystem. Once those ingredients are all available, we’ll start to see that the services of notification, storage, access control, and transmission can be recombined to achieve powerful effects.

Consider the following example. When Robert Scoble worked for Microsoft he reportedly once said: “I wish we had trackbacks for email.” Why? He was comparing the efficiency of blog communication to the relative inefficiency of email communication. In the blogosphere it’s fairly easy to trace the influence of a posting, but in email there’s no way to monitor the influence of your contribution to an email thread once your name drops off it. In a pervasively publishing-oriented enterprise, knowledge management and social network analysis would be radically simpler and more effective than they are today.

Pushing the email example even further leads to a key objection. From my perspective, my personal and professional lifebits are all part of the same stream. But can we really imagine that when I join a company I’ll be able to federate my personal lifebits service with its corporate lifebits service? That sounds crazy at first. Companies run their own email infrastructure in part so they can enforce policies about email retention and destruction. And yet, companies are increasingly outsourcing that infrastructure and delegating the enforcement of those policies to third parties. Providers that survive in an ecosystem of lifebits providers will have to convince everyone that they are trustworthy, reliable, and interoperable.

Is there a reason to think that my company’s provider will do better on those measures than my personal provider? If we’re thinking just in term of today’s email and blogging systems, then yes, there probably is. There hasn’t been an incentive, yet, for personal-grade systems to meet enterprise-grade expectations. But let’s add one more scenario:

4) I visit a doctor.

Today, the record of my visit is kept by the hospital. Yes, the portable health record is coming, finally, and that will be a great step forward. But it’s really just an interim step. Here too, the services of notification, storage, access control, and transmission can be usefully recombined. Imagine that your health records are managed, in the most permanent and authoritative sense, by your own lifebits service which you choose to federate with the corporate lifebits services of the various health care providers you encounter during your life.

This raises the bar on the guarantees of trustworthiness, reliability, and interoperability that personal lifebits service must make. Those guarantees won’t come for free. But if I can amortize the cost across all my data silos — health, family, employment, education, finance, shopping, social life — the benefits will be huge and I’ll gladly pay.